Manna lichens in the popular press
Through much of the 1800s and at least the early 1900s reports of manna lichens appeared many times in popular science magazines and newspapers. Manna lichens constituted a seemingly miraculous desert food, especially when they appeared to have fallen from the heavens. Couple that with an assumed biblical connection and it's not surprising that stories about manna lichens would get attention and on this page I will give some examples to give you an idea of how manna lichens were presented to the general public in the western world.
A report in a scientific journal was likely to be followed soon by accounts in popular science magazines or in the non-scientific press. The DIYARBAKIR'S HEAVENLY BREAD CASE STUDY gives an account of the first published report of a manna lichen fall by the Frenchman Thénard in 1828. The gist of his report to the Parisian Academy of Science was presented in the same year by The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle of London (page 259 of volume 98) as well as by a German magazine of science popularization Notizen aus dem Gebiete der Natur- und Heilkunde (volume 22, number 4, column 55).
The Austrian newspaper Wiener Zeitung published a long article about manna lichens on 7 March 1846, with a brief addition on 5 April. This gave a history of previous falls, some comments about taxonomy, a chemical analysis and a couple of small illustrations (reproduced on the right) which had been drawn specifically for the newspaper article. This article was not prompted by a scientific paper. According to the Wiener Zeitung, in January the Courier de Constantinople had reported a fall of manna lichen in the district of Jenischehir (or Yenişehir) in Turkey and later most German newspapers had followed suit. Clearly the subject was in many people's minds and was therefore newsworthy.
Two decades later the Walla Walla Statesman of December 16, 1864 (published in the then Washington Territory of the United States) contained the following report:
A RECENT FALL OF MANNA. - Sir Roderick Murchison has been informed that a fall of Manna has recently taken place in Asia Minor. - This manna is a lichen which is formed in the steppes of the Gurghis, and is often carried in these falls far to the west, across the Caspian. - These grains, which are always perfectly detached, have much of the form of a raspberry or mulberry, and are found frequently to be attached to a stony support of granite, sandstone and lime. Manna is ground into flour and baked into bread, and is known among the Turks by the name of "kerderboghdasi", which means wonder-corn or grain.
Earlier in the same year The Mercury of Hobart (31 October) had carried a report about the same incident, noting that Murchison had been informed of the fall by Professor Haidinger of Vienna. Though not germane to the popular press it's worth noting that in a scientific report elsewhere Haidinger said he had received about a pound of lichens. This helps explain why the British Medical Journal (5 November 1864) was able to report that at the annual meeting of the Association of German Naturalists and Physicians:
The Section for Botany got manna to eat. Director Haidinger of Vienna had sent a great number of the Parmelia esculenta, which had fallen as a manna-rain near Karput...
Various popular science magazines published manna lichen articles, not always in response to a recent manna fall. Pages 60-61 of Hardwicke's Science Gossip of 1872 (which appeared in 1873 and was published in London) contained an article titled "Manna of the desert", written by Robert Braithwaite, a leading British bryologist. This appears to have been prompted by some notes and specimens sent by a "valued correspondent", identified only by the initials B.W., who had collected the specimens at "Reboud Djelfa, in the desert south of the Great Atlas chain". Braithwaite noted Peter Simon Pallas' observation of manna lichens in central Russia in the 1770s. Pallas' work was not generally available so Hardwicke's included copies of Pallas two figures, the left hand pair below. They were treated as the one species with the one on the left labelled as barren and the other as fertile but later research has concluded that two separate species are shown here. Braithwaite included some observations about B.W.'s specimens ("in appearance they precisely resemble gum ammoniacum, but are lighter, and when soaked in water, of a corky consistence; their taste is slightly bitter, and internally they are of a starchy nature") and included a cross-sectional view, the rightmost figure below. Braithwaite wrote that the lichen "grows during the night like mushrooms", giving as his source a paper published by Giles Munby, a botanist who had lived in Algeria for some years. Braithwaite also wrote that "the French soldiers during an expedition south of Constantine, subsisted on it for some days cooking it in various ways and making it into bread".
Henri Chastrey published an article titled "La manne des hébreux" (The manna of the Hebrews) in La Nature, a weekly journal of science popularisation published in France. The article appeared in the issue of 8 October 1898, on pages 298-299 and, after an introductory biblical quotation, translates as follows:
Image courtesy of CNUM (Conservatoire Numérique des Arts et Métiers)
Nowadays this same manna is found by the nomadic desert Arabs, who use it to feed themselves (and their camel trains) when they chance to come across it, for the manna of the Hebrews is nothing other than a thallophyte known botanically as Canona esculenta and lichen esculentus. Saharan nomads and the inhabitants of south Algeria call it Ousseh-el-Ard (excrement of the earth). It is found in Persia, Arabia, Mesopotamia and nearly all of the Saharan desert.
It is a greyish cryptogam, the size of a pea, with the upper side bearing small protrusions, 3 or 4 millimetres long. When you cut it you find the interior has a floury look and is a mass of dull white. It grows spontaneously. [On the right is the illustration that accompanied Chastrey's text.]
Up till now there have been different opinions as to its origin. Some hold that the eggs and the spores of lichen esculentus are carried by the wind and develop when saturated by dew. Others maintain that manna, after its disappearance, leaves a mycelium on the sand, analogous to that of mushrooms, which then produces tiny cryptogams in humid conditions. The latter view appears the more plausible to us. Lichen esculentus can be found in beds two to four centimetres thick.
Manna is short-lived and must be collected in the morning right after it appears, since it dries out under the burning rays of the sun, merges with the colour of the sand and disappears. By contrast, once prepared it keeps perfectly in a closed container.
It is known and well-appreciated by the nomadic Arabs. This substance has often saved them from famine, and hence death. At times the Arabs stockpile it. Collection is easy since the lichen does not attach to any foreign object, but appears to have been thrown onto the sand.
The flavour of manna has but little resemblance to that of a mushroom. It has a starchy taste and a slight but pleasant sweetness. All herbivores, camels in particular, are very fond of it. The Arabs boil it in water and obtain a gelatinous paste, which the desert gourmets use in various ways. To conserve it they let it dry in the shade, where they wrap it, either with camel bladders or with sheepskin, once it has been reduced to a paste.
The composition of lichen esculentus is approximately as follows: water 16%, nitrogenous materials 14%, non-nitrogenous material 29%, minerals 5%, starches and sugars 32%, fats 4%.
As you can see from the chemical composition, manna is not a complete, first rate food, but the main nutrients are able to sustain an individual for some time. The Arabs of the Algerian douars at the extreme limit of the Sahara and the Chaamba are great lovers of it. Consequently, whenever there is a light rain or a heavy dew, they never fail to go looking for this beneficial manna (and light laxative), which brings some variety to their ordinary diet, usually so monotonous.
Chastrey's remarks are at odds with other reports which emphasize the use of manna lichens in bread-making and I cannot find another account of paste production via boiling. I wonder if Chastrey has mixed up manna lichens with non-lichen manna or other foodstuffs. There is some evidence that Chastrey's observations circulated widely and so may have given many people some unusual ideas about manna lichens. His article appeared in its entirety in the 1 November 1898 issue of the New Orleans French language newspaper, L'Abeille de la Nouvelle-Orleans (literally "The New Orleans Bee") and a month later the New York Times of December 4 published an abbreviated version. Late in the following year (13 September 1899) the Sydney Morning Herald published the same abbreviated account:
A LICHEN OF THE SAHARAN DESERT
According to Mr. Chastrey (says an American journal), the true manna of the Scripture is the thallophyte known to botanists as "Canona esculenta" and "Lichen esculentus." The nomads of the Sahara and South Algeria call it Ousseh-el-Ard. It is also found in Persia, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. It is grayish, about the size of a small pea, and farinaceous inside. Some say the spores are brought by wind and develop with dew. Others think it leaves a germ or seed behind it when it perishes. It should be collected in the morning of its appearance, because it dries in the sun and is lost in the sand. It can be preserved in a closed vessel. This lichen does not cling to any foreign body, but lies on the sand sometimes in a layer nearly an inch thick, and can be collected easily. It is rather sweet in taste. The Arabs whose lives it often saves, boil it in water, and thus get a gelatinous paste, which they serve in various ways. To preserve the manna they dry it in the shade, or they wrap the paste in skins. Analysis shows that the lichen contains 16 parts of water, 14 of nitrogenous matter, 29 of non-nitrogenous matter, 5 of mineral matter, 32 of sugared and amylaceous matter and 4 of fats. The Arabs of Chaambra and the Algerian douars never fail to gather it after dews and rains as a welcome addition to their diet and a gentle laxative.
The Wellington (New Zealand) Evening Post of 28 October 1899 repeated this virtually word for word and on November 22 1924 the same paper characterised the lichen thus:
It may be news to you that the salamander among lichens, Lecanora esculenta, is non other than the famous "manna in the desert" that came in so useful to the Israelites. It crops up loose on the ground, in little grey lumps lying as thick as a heavy drift of hailstones. Chance stumbling on to drifts of it has saved countless lives since Biblical days.
Percy Salmon, in his book A photographic expedition in Egypt, Palestine, Turkey & Greece, published in London in 1903, devotes a paragraph on pages 93-94 to Chastrey's thoughts about Canona esculenta.
Haidinger, W. (1864). Ein Mannaregen bei Charput in Kleinasien im März 1864. Anzeiger der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften im Wien. Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Classe, 1/18, 129-130.
Munby, G. (1849). On the Botanical Productions of the Kingdom of Algiers, followed by a short notice of the supposed Manna of the Israelites. The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Second Series, 4, 426-435. [Lichen esculentus is discussed on page 435.]
Reissek, S. (1846). Ueber die Natur des kürzlich in Klein-Asien vom Himmel gefallenen Manna. Wiener Zeitung, 7 March, 519-520.
Reissek, S. (1846). Nachträgliches über den heurigen Mannaregen. Wiener Zeitung, 5 April, 769.
Australian, Austrian and New Zealand newspapers can be found at these sites:
The popular science magazine La Nature can be found at http://cnum.cnam.fr/ .